The Tar Heels 2021 season has been one where things just haven’t seemed to go the team’s way and they came into Saturday’s meeting with Wake Forest at 4-4 and needed to pull an upset in one of the last three FBS games of the season to even make a bowl game. Some thought that this game could be an opportunity to do so, but this would take a second straight season with a win over a top ten team, something that hadn’t been done by the program since 1996. The Tar Heels played a solid first half but dug themselves an 18-point hole in the middle of the third quarter, leaving many to wonder if this would be similar to what this team has become accustomed to this year. Instead, the Tar Heels roared back, outscoring the Demon Deacons 31-10 the rest of the way to secure a massive 58-55 upset win for this 2021 team, giving the program their first win over a top ten team in Kenan Stadium since 2004.
Ty Chandler Is More Than Capable of Thriving in This Offense
Chandler hasn’t exactly been the face of consistency for the Tar Heels this season, but he has been settling into a groove of late and he had a huge performance in the upset on Saturday. Chandler ran for 213 yards and four touchdowns on 22 carries. He had nine carries of ten yards or more, three of which went for touchdowns. The last three games have shown that Chandler was a great pickup for this Tar Heel offense and could have had a year that rivaled the ones that Javonte Williams and Michael Carter had a year ago with the type of blocking that he has seen in front of him in the past three games. If he can continue to produce at the level that he has recently, this Tar Heel offense should continue to produce at a high level.
Sam Howell Leaves His Legacy With This Win
This definitely hasn’t been the season that many were expecting in Chapel Hill and the thought was that that would be the lasting memory of his junior season, which may be his final with the Tar Heels. However, leading the team to this upset victory of the Demon Deacons should now be the memory that you have of this year for him. Howell was fantastic once again, throwing for 216 yards and running for 104 yards and finding the endzone for three total touchdowns (one passing, two rushing). With his performance, he became just the third quarterback in ACC history to throw for 200 yards and run for 100 yards in at least four games in a season, joining Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson, who did in back-to-back seasons Howell once again laid his body on the line, taking some huge hits, even leaving the game for a play on the drive where the Tar Heels took the lead after taking a big hit on his left shoulder. He continues to do everything he possibly can for this team and on Saturday he was rewarded with a big win, maybe the biggest of his career, on Saturday.
Offense Is Ready Lead This Team For the Rest of the Year
The first half of this season was filled with some ups and downs for this Tar Heel offense. In each of the last three games, though, this offense has been pretty good and Saturday may have been their best performance in a game where they simply needed to be flawless. In Josh Downs' quietest game of the season, the Tar Heels were able to get huge performances from everyone else when it was needed. Chandler was obviously the big standout, but Antoine Green had his second strong performance in a row in this one and Kamari Morales came up with some big catches late. Justin Olson also made a nice catch in his best game of the season. The biggest thing that we talked about during the bye week was about finding help for Howell and Downs, something they have done in both games since then. With that being the case, they have been able to move the football much more consistently and that has resulted in two performances that should have Tar Heel fans confident that this offense can carry this team the remainder of the season.
Defense Stepped Up When It Needed To, But It Continues to Struggle Overall
The Tar Heels defense in the first three quarters was much of what we have seen so far this season. Shedding blocks, especially for the defensive front, was once again a major challenge and the secondary had two major communication breakdowns that led to two big play touchdowns for the Demon Deacons. Through three quarters, the Tar Heels had allowed 48 points and 500 yards and at one point was the main reason the team was trailing by 18 points. However, when this group needed to step up they did, stopping the Deacons three separate times and allowing just 115 yards and seven points in the fourth. The unit still has plenty of flaws that need to be worked out, but their ability to flip the switch like that in that fourth quarter needs to be commended.
Storm Duck’s Return and Power Echols Breakout Played a Huge Factor
As we talked about above, this defense struggled overall, but two players who hadn’t been able to make much of an impact this season for various reasons played big roles in the win on Saturday. Duck made his return to the lineup after playing in just one of the last eighteen games and made a huge impact on the outside. He had a good day all-around, but really stepped it up in the fourth quarter and on arguably the most important play of the day, defending the 4th and 10 pass perfectly, giving the Tar Heels the football back and allowing Ty Chandler to seal the game with a 50-yard touchdown run. His performance coupled with a breakout day from Power Echols, who played the majority of the snaps alongside Cedric Gray after Jeremiah Gemmel was ejected from the game for targeting after the first quarter. Despite not starting the game, the true freshman finished the game with seven total tackles, second-most for the team on Saturday, and gave people a glimpse of what could be a bright future for him in this Tar Heel defense.